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When Culture Meets Fashion: Students Share Why They Wear Waist Beads

Alana Matthew | 101 Magazine Stacey Prev poses for a photo adorning her waistbeads. Photo by Eliana Lewis.

The arrival of spring on Howard University’s campus brings out – arguably – the best outfits of the school year. The warm weather turns the Yard into a fashion show, illustrating all different fashion styles. Even with the distinct fashion of Howard students, a staple among many is the inclusion of waist beads.

In a feature story published by the Guardian Nigerian News, Oreoritse Tariemi details the traditional cultural significance of waist beads in different African societies. In some cultures, waist beads can represent a girl’s entrance into womanhood, with a mother gifting her daughter waist beads after she receives her first period; Traditionally waist beads are considered a private affair.

According to the article, waist beads are worn underneath clothing, “not to be seen by anyone except the wearer’s partner.”

Waist beads have become a crucial component of many students’ wardrobes, with there being various reasons to wear them. While some question “who has the right to wear waist beads” based on its cultural significance, others choose to embrace the jewelry in whichever way calls to them. 

Alana Matthew | 101 Magazine From a hobby to a thriving business, Aniyah Gomez started her jewelry-making business once she saw how receptive others were. Photo by Eliana Lewis

Aniyah Gomez, the owner of Beadsby Brincess, sells bracelets, anklets, and waist beads. What originally started as a hobby turned into a profitable business once people started noticing her pieces and requesting similar items.

Gomez’s introduction to waist beads was through another use – weight loss.

“[Waist beads] can be used for many things. They originated in Africa, where the women would use them to track their weight,” she said. “If the waist bead gets tighter, then you’ve gained weight; if it gets looser, then you’ve lost weight.” Gomez sells stretchy waist beads to fit “all shapes and sizes,” and offers alterations if requested.

Showcasing her multicolored waist beads, she showed me the different lengths and materials used to make them. Traditionally, waist beads can be made out of various materials such as crystals, beads, glass, etc. Most of the waist beads created by Gomez are beaded, though some are embedded with crystals meant to offer spiritual significance to the wearer.

“I feel like it gives me a purpose to do what I love and like what I do,” Gomez said of her business. “I think it’s really nice that you can share that with all different kinds of people, all different colors, shapes, sizes, it’s very inclusive and diverse.”

Stacey Prev, a freshman health science major and maternal health minor from Florida, began wearing her waist beads as a way to track her weight. “I think it was when I started gaining weight as a way to stop myself from overeating and undereating. It’s just a way to help me,” she said. 

Mikayla Eatmon, a sophomore psychology pre-med major from Houston, also began wearing waist beads for a similar reason. “When I first started wearing waist beads it was to track weight loss and stuff like that but then I just fell in love with it.”

Students who were asked about the impact of wearing waist beads mentioned that they felt beautiful and divinely connected to their feminine side when wearing them; while a few spoke about the way waist beads represent a celebration of culture along with a personal significance.

“I had these blue waist beads with a butterfly on them and they were meant to represent femininity,” Eaton said. After adorning the jewelry for a long time, they broke. While normally the loss of one’s favorite items can be cause for heartbreak, Eaton described the act as feeling almost spiritual. “It felt like I was kinda unlocking a new chapter of my femininity,” she said.

Meron Campbell, a junior English major, and Spanish minor, relates to the beauty found in waistbeads. 

“I was interested in them, but then I saw people wearing them and they were beautiful,” Campbell said. Recognizing the cultural significance of waist beads, she decided to learn more about them from some of her friends who were Ghanaian. 

“Personally, I’m Jamaican. I know we have some Ghanaian culture but I don’t know all the details,” she said. She shared that wearing her waist beads “makes me feel more in touch with my culture.”

Eliana Lewis

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